Somudah and her family have been living as refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, since September 2017, after fleeing violence in Myanmar. The family is one of many thousands in Cox’s Bazar served by CPI’s Community Health Volunteer program and other services. To mark the second anniversary of the Rohingya Refugee Crisis, we spoke to Somudah about the difficulties she and her family have faced over the past two years, and her hopes for the future.
When the violence came, Somudah and her husband were living in a village in Buthidaung Township, Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, earning their living through farming. In late August 2017, Somudah’s village was attacked and houses were set on fire. Somudah and her husband gathered up their four-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son and fled to a nearby forest where they spent the night. The next day, they began the difficult and dangerous journey to the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
The family walked for 12 days to reach the border. They traveled as part of a group that had gathered in the forest the previous night. For safety, they tried to keep off the roads as much as possible. Their children were terrified and cried constantly. On the second day, they crossed mountainous terrain. It was a hard climb. Somudah and her husband carried their children as well as the food and belongings they had grabbed as they fled their home.
At one point later in the journey, they were stopped and questioned by soldiers. Some members of the group were assaulted and items including money, jewelry and solar lights were taken from them.
They reached the Naf River, on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, in early September 2017, but were not able to cross due to border restrictions. They waited on the banks of the river for 10 days. When they were finally able to cross and reached the Bangladesh side of the river, they were overcome with relief. But Somudah and her husband soon had to worry about what they would do next.
They spent their first night in Bangladesh on the river bank and then traveled to Camp 3 of the Kutupalong Expansion Site in Cox's Bazar. This site was rapidly becoming the world’s largest refugee camp as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees like Somudah and her family poured across the border from Myanmar.
They found their way to a distribution point operated by aid agencies where they received some basic items including rice, mats and clothes for the children.
On arrival in the camp, Somudah and her family lived without shelter for three days. Aid agencies were overwhelmed trying to cope with the huge influx of refugees. It was the monsoon season and their children, exhausted by the journey from Myanmar, got sick. Eventually, they found a place to build a shelter, bought bamboo poles and tarpaulins with the little money they had, and built it themselves. In the first few weeks, it was difficult to access clean drinking water as there were so few distribution points.
Two years on, the family’s situation has improved but they still face many challenges. Over time, they have received support from aid agencies to improve their living conditions. They now have a stove and a gas cylinder to cook with, and a ‘rice card’ that gives them access to basic food rations.
The lack of access to employment means that they have very little money to buy supplementary food or other items that they need. They try to earn a little extra money where they can. Somudah’s husband goes out looking for day labor, but jobs are scarce and wages low. Somudah makes fans and sells them in the market but this only brings her a very small amount of money.
Sometimes Somudah has to sell a portion of the rations they receive, often just rice and "dal", to buy other foods to improve their diet. During the recent Eid festival, her children asked for treats, but she didn’t have any money to buy them anything. She worries because she cannot afford to buy fruit to help keep them healthy.
During the monsoon season (June to October), Somudah and her family live in fear of landslides and flooding. Overcrowding and deforestation make the camps particularly vulnerable. The family’s shelter has been destroyed three times by landslides. On each occasion, they had to rebuild the shelter without any support, costing them around 2,000 taka (around USD 24 at the time of writing) per time.
Somudah also worries about the threat of kidnapping and human trafficking. She hears rumors in the community and sometimes there are reports of missing children on the neighborhood loudspeaker.
Access to water, sanitation and hygiene are also challenging in Somudah’s neighborhood. It is a half-hour walk from their shelter to the nearest drinking water distribution station, and there are usually very long queues. Just securing enough water for the family to drink can take up much of the day. The latrines and washing facilities that the family use are not gender segregated. Somudah says that women often do not feel comfortable to visit them, particularly at night, if there are many men waiting to use the facilities.
It can also be difficult to access health care. Somudah recalled an incident when her husband had a serious fever. They went to a community clinic and he was given paracetamol. They returned to the clinic the next day as his condition had not improved. However, the line was very long and the clinic closed before they could see a health worker. So they went to a local doctor and paid for treatment, though they couldn’t really afford it. Somudah worries what she will do if her children get sick and she doesn’t have money to pay for treatment.
Since January 2019, Rajuma, a CPI-supported Community Health Volunteer, has conducted regular household visits with Somudah and her family as part of her monthly rounds in the neighborhood. CPI supports a network of 80 Rohingya Community Health Volunteers that provide the first line of health care to their communities. Somudah says that Rajuma has given the family helpful information on different diseases and health problems, and advised them where to go to receive treatment. She has provided education on family planning, prenatal and postnatal care, and good general health and hygiene practices. She has also given the family information on gender-based violence, including prevention methods, which Somudah says are particularly beneficial for the community.
Somudah is unsure of the future. She is not sure what the family will do if they have to stay in Bangladesh for a long period. She hopes that they will be able to return to their home in Myanmar, but they will only go back if they are guaranteed equal rights and citizenship. Otherwise, she says, it’s not safe for them. She hopes that governments can work together to help achieve this.
Community Partners International (CPI) has worked with Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, since September 2017, supporting them to meet their essential needs. CPI's activities encompass: community-based health services; access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene; gender-based violence prevention; and energy solutions such as improved cookstoves and solar lights. Visit our Rohingya Refugee Response page for more information.